Interview: Tow Ubukata

by Todd Ciolek,

Tow Ubukata's traveled to North America in many ways. His novels inspired the gothic anime series Le Chevalier d'Eon, the complex Renaissance fantasy manga Pilgrim Jäger, and even Capcom's PlayStation 2 brawler Chaos Legion. Yet Ubukata's most revered work in Japan is a line of novels called Mardock Scramble, which won him the Nihon SF Taisho award in 2003. Now, Mardock Scramble is finally coming to these shores.

The first of three Mardock Scramble films premiered at the New York Anime Festival, and VIZ plans to release the original Mardock Scramble novel through the Haikasoru imprint on January 15. It's an accomplishment for a bleak and imaginative book that once prompted someone to tell Ubukata “there is no way this is going to get animated.”

Mardock Scramble isn't for the lighthearted, of course. It takes an unblinking look at the death and resurrection of a young prostitute named Rune Balot, who's revived by science (and a talking, shapeshifting mouse-weapon named Oeufcoque) so she can hunt her killer in a corrupt city of the future. It's gruesome, harsh, and disturbing beyond the typical anime offering, and Ubukata revealed many of Mardock's ingredients during a conference at the 2010 New York Anime Festival.

Anime News Network: What would you say were the largest influences on Mardock Scramble? Were you influenced by other science fiction? You mentioned the title itself is a reference to the Babylonian god Mardock.

Tow Ubukata: I studied quite a bit about Mardock in college, so that fell into play. But for the most part, there were a variety of influences. It's not quite science fiction, but I received quite a bit from Stephen King's novels.

Both Le Chevalier d'Eon and Mardock Scramble are about women who are murdered and then brought back to life to avenge their deaths. Why does that theme interest you?

Such a theme is quite dramatic and strong, and the preciousness of life is most easily represented when the life is in danger.

During the Q&A session after the showing of Mardock Scramble on Friday, you mentioned a common theme in Mardock and Japanese science fiction is that of the victim or the oppressed getting power and then abusing that power. Why do you think that is a common theme and why do you like it?

During the rebuilding of Japan after World War II, one theme that the Japanese government used was that technology will save the people and the country. So, look at a lot of the works in Japan; for example, Astro Boy. Astro Boy is a representation of Japan's hope toward nuclear power. But at the same time, technology can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you use it. Japan is a country that has really felt this through all the industrial pollution and the harm that comes from it. I believe that is why this is a common theme in Japanese science fiction.

How is Balot set apart from the female leads in other novels and anime?

One distinct feature about Balot is that her character encompasses a level of sexuality that's considered inappropriate for animation. At the same time, in Japan there's inequality between men and women, and there's abuse of young women. But this problem is ignored and not acknowledged by society. Through the character Balot I wanted to create an animation piece that forces people to acknowledge this problem.

Currently society as a whole is more acknowledging of this problem in Japan. When I first wrote the novel everyone said that female child prostitution didn't exist in Japan, but now, the news acknowledges that this does exist and that this is a problem.

A balot is an egg recipe where a chick that's about to hatch is cooked within the shell of the egg. So it's a metaphor for a character who's trapped in an egg and whose cries for help can't be heard by anybody. For Balot, the only one who can cure her cries for help is the mouse. Her lack of a voice is representative of this struggle. So that's the reasoning behind the shell when Balot is reborn.

One of the more striking parts in the first episode of Mardock Scramble is where a bunch of twisted serial killers go after Balot. They are kind of disturbing, because you've got a guy with eyes all over himself, and others. How did you come up with them?

When coming up with the villains of the plot, I wanted to create villains who treated human beings as objects. People who had no concern for the human spirit, to whom the person was just a piece of meat that they could cook, sort of like meat-related recipes. It's the opposite of cooking with eggs.

Mardock Scramble was originally going to be made into a video series by Gonzo back in 2006. It was cancelled, but I understand there was some work done on it. How would you say this new Mardock Scramble compares to that one in bringing the story to life?

While producing the anime at Gonzo, we ran into a lot of different troubles, but it was a great learning process. Through this experience I feel we were able to take the best parts of animating Mardock Scramble at Gonzo and take it into this new version of Mardock Scramble.

So there was really no specific reason why the Gonzo anime was cancelled?

I think it was the bursting of the anime bubble in 2006. That was the main reason it wasn't fully produced by Gonzo.

Do you have a favorite scene in Mardock Scramble?

The one I like best is when Oeufcoque is being held in Balot's hand and saying “I'm not a human, I'm a mouse,” and the way their partnership is born. That's probably my favorite scene.

Why a mouse?

The mouse is a creature that keeps eating so long as it is alive. It keeps growing heavier until one day it collapses from its own weight. They keep reproducing and increasing in numbers until they run out of food and the entire pack dies out. I wanted to use the mouse as a metaphor for the uncontrollable growth of cities, the proliferation of weapons across countries and just the abuse of power by people.

And that's why Oeufcoque can turn into any weapon?

That's it.

What was the inspiration behind the city in Mardock Scramble?

I used New York as a model in terms of it being a future city because a lot of people would recognize the name from both America and Japan. You probably noticed that Central Park was one of the places mentioned. In terms of how it is organized, I used Hong Kong as one of the inspirations, where the poor live on the coast while the wealthy live up on the hills.

But it is an original city, correct? It is not actually supposed to be New York or Hong Kong?

We were planning at first for it to be New York City but problems developed. So we decided to make it an individual city. It is a unique city because if we say it's New York then a lot of people might not feel kindly towards that.

What was the inspiration for the character Shell, who has his memories erased?

It pretty much came from the name itself. I wanted to convey an image of something that has just a shell, and it's empty inside. So Shell would really be a dangerous character in which there would be no emotion. He's a character that has no morals, no empathy, no feelings towards others. It seems like he has ambition, that he has a purpose he wants to accomplish, but even that purpose is not his own. Balot is seeking shelter, seeking help from the shell but instead she is trapped by the shell and killed by the shell.

You've worked in video games as well as manga and anime. Are there any plans to broaden Mardock Scramble into a game series?

A manga version of Mardock Scramble is currently being serialized in Japan, and there are plans to release an English version of that manga. But as far as a game goes, censorship is very strict in the video game industry. So there are no plans right now to make a video game out of it.

With all of the cooking metaphors in Mardock Scramble, do you enjoy cooking? Are you a good cook?

[laughs] No, not really. I don't really cook.

Any closing remarks?

The Mardock Scramble novel's English translation has been in the works for three years, and we finally came up with a product that we can release to the public. So if you want to know what happens after the first episode of the anime, I suggest you pick up the novel, because we have plot twists that you cannot possibly imagine.

All images (c) Tow Ubukata/MS Committee.

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